The most audacious thing about Barack Obama’s new memoir, “A Promised Land,” is the beaming portrait on its cover: There he is, the 44th president, looking so serenely confident that it’s as if the book weren’t arriving on the heels of a bitter election, amid a cratering economy and a raging pandemic.
The ebullient image also stands at odds with the narrative inside — 700 pages that are as deliberative, measured and methodical as the author himself. Obama says that he initially planned to write a 500-page memoir and be done in a year; what he ended up with instead is a hefty volume (now the first of an anticipated two) that stops in May 2011, shortly after his roasting of Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on April 30 and the killing of Osama bin Laden the day after.
Obama’s extraordinary first book, “Dreams From My Father,” was published in 1995, a year before he was elected to the Illinois senate, and traced his family history alongside his own coming-of-age. “A Promised Land” is necessarily less intimate and more political, offering close-up views of the major issues that Obama faced during his first term, including the economic stimulus, health care, immigration, the environment and the forever war in Afghanistan.
Presumably left for the future volume are, among other fraught subjects: the 2016 election, his abdication of his own “red line” in Syria, the entrenchment of the surveillance state and a discussion of drone strikes. This isn’t to say that “A Promised Land” reads like a dodge; if anything, its length testifies to what seems to be a consistently held faith on the part of the former president — that if he just describes his thinking in sufficient detail, and clearly lays out the constellation of obstacles and constraints he faced, any reasonable American would have to understand why he governed as he did.